The Binge-Drinking Brain—Scientists Identify Pathway Linked To Excess Drinking

By May Wilkerson 05/06/16

Recent findings could lead to future treatment to prevent binge-drinkers from crossing over into alcohol dependence.

The Binge-Drinking Brain—Scientists Identify Pathway Linked To Excess Drinking
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Binge drinking is a global problem. In America, one in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per binge. In England, there is even a £3 pill available that is intended to reduce one's urge to drink. Nalmefene, or Selincro, works by blocking the body's opioid receptors and hampering any feeling of reward or pleasure produced by alcohol. According to the Telegraph, it is taken to stop a person from having more than one drink. Some are wary of the pill's ability to curb drinking, but a recent development presented by researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has brought us that much closer to understanding binge drinking, and a potential drug to treat this behavior.

In a study of mice, the UNC researchers found they were able to reduce the critters’ cravings for alcohol by switching off the circuit between two brain regions—the extended amygdala (which responds to stress) and the ventral tegmental area (which responds to reward). It is the first time a pathway has been identified between the two regions, and it sheds light on why we binge drink.

In short, alcohol activates the CRF (corticotropin releasing factor) neurons, which connect the two brain regions, resulting in drinking excessively. "These observations in mice suggest that when someone drinks alcohol, CRF neurons become active in the extended amygdala and act on the ventral tegmental area to promote continued and excessive drinking, culminating in a binge," according to a UNC release published in April.

The researchers hope the same results could be achieved in human brains. "The puzzle is starting to come together, and is telling us more than we ever knew about before," said UNC Professor Todd Thiele. "We now know that two brain regions that modulate stress and reward are part of a functional circuit that controls binge drinking and adds to the idea that manipulating the CRF system is an avenue for treating it."

Thiele says the study, published in Biological Psychiatry, could contribute to future treatments that could help people curb their binge drinking and prevent them from crossing over into alcohol dependence. "It’s very important that we continue to try to identify alternative targets for treating alcohol use disorders," he said. "If you can stop somebody from binge drinking, you might prevent them from ultimately becoming alcoholics."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.